Teachers have a critical role to play in counteracting “unconscionable” attitudes and language that have become mainstream under Donald Trump’s presidency and have fuelled a rise in school bullying, according to Chelsea Clinton.
The author, advocate and daughter of former US president Bill Clinton and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told Tes: “Teachers are hugely important. In the United States, we sadly have seen a rise in bullying that cites President Trump.”
Pointing to evidence from the Southern Poverty Law Center that this type of behaviour had spiked in US schools, she said: “Bullies are saying to Hispanic American children, ‘We’re going to build a wall and kick you all out,’ or bullies are using derogatory language about girls, and they’re saying it’s OK because President Trump said it.”
She added: “They’re using his language, or they’re citing him as this authority figure to justify their bullying. So teachers are hugely important in helping to protect students from bullies, and also to try to help the students who are bullying to understand why that’s unacceptable in a school environment or outside a school environment.”
Clinton, who is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today and tomorrow, also believes the rapid rise of such bullying shows that not enough pre-emptive work on citizenship has been done in schools.
In an interview with Tes, she said that in society more generally the idea of “political correctness” had been unfairly “maligned”, adding: “President Trump has been celebrated for giving voice to things that were considered unacceptable or even unconscionable to say. I actually think it should be unacceptable and unconscionable to say racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic things.”
She said more should be done to challenge such attitudes at an early age by “sharing and celebrating stories of people who historically have been left out of the history books”.
Clinton’s own “very small efforts” to do so are her new children’s book, She Persisted Around the World, which celebrates landmark achievements by 13 women, and its predecessor, She Persisted, which focuses on inspirational US women who have overcome adversity.
When asked when there might be a first female US president to include in a future book like this, Clinton said: “I have no idea.” And on whether she would follow her parents into a political career, she said “not at the moment”, adding: “I’m very grateful to be able to do the work I do as an author and advocate and teacher. But, you know, I certainly won’t say never – but not now.”
Clinton, who has taught at university level, stressed that schoolboys, not just girls, need to hear more stories about influential and successful women.
She said: “It is important that our boys grow up not only thinking that girls can do everything, but [that girls] should have every opportunity that they have.” At the moment, however, she said that “children’s media is awash still with stories that are centred on boys”, which highlight a vast range of male leaders from superheroes to industry chiefs.
Some figures in Clinton’s book are relatively unheralded but others are extremely well known, such as Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Clinton writes about a publisher’s advice to Rowling – before the 1997 publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – to call herself “JK” rather than “Joanne”, in case boys were disinclined to read female authors.
“I think that, thankfully, JK Rowling has helped change this – I think that there isn’t the same stigma about women writing about boy wizards, or, probably, boys or men more broadly,” she said. “That being said, I know that in some parts of the world, it’s still considered unacceptable for women to be in the public domain at all.”
Clinton wants schools to do more banish what she sees as a vicious circle that discourages girls from pursuing subjects such as science, technology, maths and engineering (Stem).
“It’s important that teachers call on girls, particularly in Stem classes, because often boys are quicker to raise their hand, and often that translates into a pattern where teachers call on boys more – and then that, unfortunately, translates to fewer girls raising their hand, so their voices don’t matter as much in those subjects.
“We know that having things like robotics programmes that are for the whole class – so that kids don’t self-select – are hugely important, because often boys will self-select into those.”
Clinton had “great teachers” at school who inspired a passion for books from the start and helped her “think critically about what I was reading, and not just read it for the enjoyment”. But she fears the world is “very far away” from providing such educational opportunities to all children, with tens of millions not in school – and girls more likely to miss out than boys.
She said: “To ensure that every child has every chance at school, it’s not only a question of building schools and training teachers and ensuring that the teachers will be paid appropriately for their valuable work, it’s also about the infrastructure challenges of ensuring that kids can get to and from school safely, [or] energy challenges – ensuring that children have light by which to do their homework at night. It’s incredibly complex.”